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Architect’s proposal for Mill Race venue earns praise from officials

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A proposal to renovate the Custer-Nugent Amphitheater in Mill Race Park utilizes a multiple-use concept that would include a retractable canopy over audience seating, a larger stage and lighting enhancements, among other improvements.

The concept cleared the first of many hurdles Monday when a Cleveland architectural firm impressed a group of city officials considering the project.

But the city has yet to hire Westlake Reed Leskosky to renovate the amphitheater or to decide how to pay for it.

Mayor Kristen Brown, who is president of the redevelopment commission, said that, while the architect impressed commission members, she wants to gauge the Columbus City Council’s interest in the project before moving forward with any contract negotiations with the architectural firm.

Matt Janiak, a principal with the Cleveland firm, presented conceptual designs to the Columbus Redevelopment Commission in an hourlong presentation, providing artist renderings, construction estimates ranging from $3 million to $4.3 million, and a potential schedule for the project, pending a start date.

Janiak presented cost estimates for three options:

$3 million for the minimum project requirements and performance equipment.

$3.9 million for a project with some enhancements, including a retractable canopy over audience seating in the mound, permanent event restrooms and concessions.

$4.3 million for the enhancements, additional lighting and electrical upgrades and paved access to the stage and loading area.

The renovation proposal calls for demolishing the current stage to construct a new, wider stage that would sit farther back, opening an additional 240 seats that could be reserved for VIPs. The conceptual designs also call for a canopy over the audience in the mound and side curtains on the stage, both of which could be retracted depending on weather and the needs of the performance.

Janiak also presented the firm’s plans to design and construct a performers pavilion near the stage, where entertainers could have a space to prepare. The pavilion would include areas for dressing rooms, catering prep, production and a “green room.” It also would have a path leading directly to the amphitheater stage.

The firm’s conceptual design for the pavilion allows for multiple uses, including an orchestra performance, a musical act, a rock concert with multiple acts, an outdoor wedding reception or a graduation ceremony.

Overall, Janiak said, the design and materials are simple, a purposeful move that aligns the design with the existing architecture in the park and that makes maintenance to the structure easy for those who would oversee it.

Positive response

The design addresses extensive flooding that occurs in the park, he said. The pavilion would be above the 100-year flood line, he said, and the stage would be constructed to allow water to flow in and out without sloshing around and damaging the structure.

Commission members and residents, including members of the 10-member steering committee that interviewed and selected the Cleveland firm, expressed support for the concepts presented.

“I’m extremely impressed,” Brown said. “The concepts were great. What is resonating with me is just the endless possibilities.”

Steering committee member David Bowden, the music director and conductor for the Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra, said it is “enjoyable to consider the opportunities” and possibilities that the firm’s designs offer.

Bowden said he is excited about the project largely because of Westlake Reed Leskosky and the nine-member interview team that the architectural firm sent to Columbus in June.

“They came here knowing who we are, knowing the legacy of great architects who have built here and wanting to be a part of it,” Bowden said. “And before they were paid a dime, they did 50 times as much work as the other two candidates to get ready.”

The firm is just as excited about the project as the committee members are, Janiak said.

Westlake Reed Leskosky hopes to be able to move forward with the project, he said, and help the city transform the amphitheater into a space that will entice well-known performers and benefit the community.

Redevelopment commission member Bob Abrams, who represents the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. on the board, said people likely will be skeptical about keeping the amphitheater in the flood plain. The firm’s reasoning behind designing around the flood plain will have to be rock solid, he said.

Addressing the need

Something needs to be done to the amphitheater if the city wants to keep using it for events, said Chris Crawl, the technical director for the Columbus Area Arts Council and member of the steering committee.

The current structure and electrical systems, which are original to the 21-year-old building, won’t last much longer, he said.

Renovations to the amphitheater have been on the city’s radar for more than a year and they’re much needed, said Jayne Farber, a steering committee member who also served as a consultant on the project until her July 1 retirement.

The venue was built in 1993 by architect Stanley Saitowitz. Since then, Farber said, there have been no major enhancements or any extensive maintenance to the structure.

The park is located in a designated flood area, and the amphitheater is directly in the floodway. During flooding, the amphitheater’s dressing rooms and electrical panels can get damaged by mud and water.

The amphitheater is exposed to the elements and also is built in a way that cannot always adequately handle performers’ stage equipment.

Farber said when the rock group REO Speedwagon performed last August, the concert stage had to be built away from the amphitheater.

And during big events, such as Rock the Park or the Our Hospice benefit concert, the crowd is positioned on the lawn instead of in the mound seating to accommodate more spectators because the amphitheater seating holds about 450. The bigger concerts have drawn audiences in excess of 7,000.

But the lawn seating puts more distance between the audience and the artist because the ground where the crowd assembles is lower on the lawn side.

Westlake Reed Leskosky addressed those problems and more when developing its conceptual designs, Janiak said.

The work to implement those designs likely would take about two years to complete, he said, including time for design, bidding and construction.

And depending on what the city wants and is willing to pay for, the cost could vary.

The architect now will present ideas for the redesign to the council next Tuesday at its meeting at 6 p.m. in city hall, said Heather Pope, the city’s redevelopment director.

Council approval is crucial, the mayor said. That’s because if the commission decided to fund the project with tax-increment financing district dollars, the council also would have to be in favor of spending the money, since it must approve any spending greater than $500,000.

Should the council react favorably to the project, she said, the city could then work up a contract with Westlake Reed Leskosky.

Ideally, that contract could then receive approval from the redevelopment commission at its Aug. 18 meeting, Pope said — at which point the firm could move beyond its conceptual designs and start working on blueprints.

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